Browns' Biggest Keys to Having Successful NFL Offseason

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2021

Browns' Biggest Keys to Having Successful NFL Offseason

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    Kirk Irwin/Associated Press

    The Browns face a pivotal NFL offseason in 2021 in unfamiliar territory. 

    Cleveland hasn't gone into an offseason off a playoff season since 2002, and the front office back then wasn't able to keep that streak going. With the emergence of the offense under Kevin Stefanski and many of the franchise's demons officially exorcised, there's hope for a fanbase that has been desperate for it. 

    This roster is already much better equipped to repeat the success of 2020 than the 2002 version. Baker Mayfield returns as a fourth-year starter at quarterback. The offensive line that was one of the best in football is pretty much intact, and the tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will return as well. 

    However, there are still holes that need to be filled and important decisions that will need to be made. From free agency to the draft, the Browns need to navigate this offseason in a way that not only puts them in a position to make another run at the playoffs this year but also has them as a contender over the next five years. 

    Cleveland has the resources to upgrade the roster. According to the latest estimates from Spotrac, it will go into the offseason with $27.6 million to spend and doesn't have any major free agents who should eat into that number. 

    The Browns also have further draft capital in an additional third- and fourth-round pick as well as all their own picks. 

    Here are some of the major objectives they'll need to complete to get the most out of the offseason. 

Beef Up the Pass Rush

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Myles Garrett is the crown jewel of the Browns defense. If he can stay healthy the entire campaign and play at the level he showed in the 2020 season, he will be a serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year.

    But even with the 25-year-old wreaking havoc on opposing passers this season, the Browns were still just 24th in pressure percentage. They only generated pressure on 21.9 percent of dropbacks, which is unacceptable in building a 21st-century defense. 

    Cleveland needs another pass-rush presence on the roster who can take the pressure off of Garrett. He is the type of player who commands double-teams, so a figure who can either force teams to double him or can take advantage of the one-on-ones created by Garrett is crucial. 

    Olivier Vernon filled that role at times last season. He had nine sacks but seven of those came in three games. So he was up-and-down before rupturing his Achilles in the final game of the campaign, which makes him questionable to even play at the beginning of next season. 

    Instead, the Browns should be looking to spend some of that cash on an edge-rusher in free agency.

    There are plenty of options that could be available: From aging veterans such as J.J. Watt and Von Miller to guys who will command big dollars but are in their prime like Yannick Ngakoue and Trey Hendrickson. 

    The Browns defense has holes at all three levels. No one move is going to take it from just OK to dominant. But finding a running mate for Garrett in their pursuit of opposing quarterbacks is something that can mask a lot of deficiencies in the back seven. 

    The Browns could draft an edge-defender early, but there's little to no guarantee they will produce right away. Even Chase Young, who was clearly the top defender in the draft, finished outside the top 25 in sacks this season. 

Go Heavy on Defense in the Draft

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    While the Browns have a good amount of spending money heading into the 2021 offseason, they still need to be wise. The money for the future tends to evaporate pretty quickly when you are thinking about extensions for Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward as well as the future contract of Nick Chubb. 

    The window of heavy spending while their quarterback is on a rookie contract is coming to an end sooner than later. They will likely pick up Mayfield's fifth-year option this offseason, which will mark the end of their savings. 

    That means this is still a team that is going to have to primarily build through the draft. 

    The Carolina Panthers took this idea to the extreme in the 2020 draft using every pick they had on defense. It may be extreme, but that's an approach the Browns should consider. 

    A receiver with speed would be nice. The triumvirate of Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins will be hard to keep around through 2022, and Higgins is a free agent this year. Other than that, though, there aren't really any pressing needs on the offensive side of the football. 

    The Browns should be putting together a draft board that is heavy on the defensive side and be taking the best player available on that board when their picks come up.

    For instance, if they stay pat at the 26th pick, they could be looking at a choice between cornerback Jaycee Horn, linebacker Zaven Collins or edge-defender Joseph Ossai. There really might not be a wrong choice there, as all three would be filling a real need. 

    This offseason isn't just about contending next season. It's about building a championship team during Mayfield's second contract. Giving him a defense that can put the offense in good positions is crucial. 

Don't Commit Long-Term to Veteran Free Agents

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Finding relevancy for the first time in nearly two decades can't distract the Browns from the big picture.

    Their potential to become a Super Bowl contender over the next five years is because of a nucleus that includes Baker Mayfield, Jedrick Wills, Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett. 

    Retaining those homegrown players and continuing to build through the draft has to continue to be the priority. 

    That being said, there's room for the Browns to add some veteran free agents who could make a difference. Just looking at what the Buccaneers did in 2020 by signing some older, proven players shows it can pay off in a big way. 

    That's fine if the Browns find those opportunities. Players like Richard Sherman, Von Miller and J.J. Watt can and should be on their radar. But they can't break the bank for them or commit to spending guaranteed money on them before a year or two. 

    Taking big swings at players with some name recognition is something the organization has done over the years. Willie McGinest, Jeff Garcia and Dwayne Bowe are just a few of the players the Browns have signed in the past hoping to become relevant. 

    That shouldn't be a reason to sign someone anymore. The Browns are relevant, but that's because of the young core they have assembled. All veterans signing at this point are to simply bolster depth and create a dangerous team in the playoffs. 

    There's no reason to overpay or overextend themselves to create headlines in the offseason.